As a father to school-age children, I like report card time. I like to see their efforts in black and white, but I know the report cards are only a part of the story, only a part of their real grade. Like most parents, I take the report cards with me when I meet with their teachers and that is where I get the rest of the story. By talking one-on-one with their teachers I am able to put that C- in French into perspective and learn that they really are trying, staying after for help and seeking assistance.
The legal review group Help Abolish Legal Tyranny or HALT, recently released its Judicial Accountability Report Card for 2008. The report gives Maine an F for failing to provide transparent and easy to access judicial accountability. Are HALT’s grades fair, or are they “scathing indictments of toothless judicial ethics standards” as HALT claims?
HALT began in 1978 by a group of legal reformers dissatisfied with the United State’s legal system. Since then, they have expanded to helping people understand the legal system and are recognized as harsh critics of the judiciary. HALT has developed a series of categories to evaluate the judicial system, including: transparency, availability of meaningful sanc-tions, consumer friendliness, online outreach, public participation, financial disclosure and gift restrictions. They combine the grades in these categories to determine the overall grade. There are some inconsistencies between HALT’s assessments and the rest of the story here in Maine.
In the transparency category, Maine received an F because Maine only requires disclosure of ethics complaints when discipline is ordered, either by the Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability, or the highest courts. However, this is often due to the fact that many cases in which complaints are made relate to highly sensitive subjects such as family, personal or child related proceedings. In addition, Maine does make complaints public upon formal charges only, which should grant Maine a C according to HALT’s own methodology.
In consumer friendliness, Maine received an F because Maine imposes gag orders on the complainants. This is not true. Complainants are allowed to make their complaints public, but the proceedings are held confidential. The committee’s executive secretary, Cab Howard, even informs complainants of their rights to take their case public should they choose.
In the online outreach category, Maine received an F for the lack of a separate Web site for the commission. As it now stands, the commission’s rules are available on the Maine Judicial Branch Web site and complaint forms are available at all courthouses. Maine is in the process of updating the Web site to connect the public directly with the complaint committee. Currently, the link to the committee provides only an address to which to send mail. However, improving communication between the population and the committee through a new and improved Web site is a priority.
Maine received an F in gift restrictions, for apparently requiring no restrictions on judges receiving reimbursements, compensation and honoraria in connection with privately sponsored trips. Again, not true. Maine does stipulate restrictions on receiving gifts; our restrictions are based on reason. Rule 4 (H) (2), restricts “expense reimbursement or payment” to “the actual cost of travel, food, and lodging reasonably incurred.” According to HALT’s standards, Maine’s lack of a definite monetary amount is what gave us the failing grade. We do place these restrictions; they are simply based on common sense, not money. Maine is joined by 42 other states in this assessment.
HALT’s assessment of Maine’s judicial system is “scathing.” But like all report cards, it is simply one part of the overall story. They often fail to see the facts and laws, judging the judicial system through their narrow criteria. While our judicial system has its flaws, it is by no means a failure of a system.
Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, is the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.